09/28/2011 07:24 am ET Updated Nov 28, 2011

When It's Safer to Walk Home Alone

Stories that start at 3:45 in the morning rarely end well.

Late Saturday night, I found myself on a busy street corner in Brooklyn attempting to catch a cab home -- and failing miserably.

My Manhattan-bound friend grabbed a taxi without a problem -- at that time of night, every cab wants to take you back to the city, but no one wants to go in the opposite direction.

My ride home would be a short one. I'd been sipping cocktails with friends at a bar about a half mile from my apartment. It was an easy walk back, even in high heels, but the abandoned, boarded-up lot next to my apartment building was shadowy enough for me to drop the extra few dollars on a safe ride to my doorstep. So I waited.

A black Lincoln Town Car with tinted windows -- a so-called "gypsy cab" -- pulled up alongside me. The driver was a slender white man in his mid-50s with a heavy Brooklyn accent. He asked me where I was headed. I told him.

"Oh, that's right down the street," he said. "Pay whatever you want. Just hop in."

At that point, alarm bells probably should have started ringing. Gypsy cabs aren't known for their generosity -- in fact, most people I know avoid them because they quote obscene rates for even the shortest rides. Unlike their more well-known and better-regulated counterparts, the yellow cabs, these rides don't offer a metered fare or city-enforced regulation. But they get business when yellow cabs are nowhere to be found, in situations exactly like the one I found myself in.

So it was with relief rather than trepidation that I slid into the backseat of that luxury vehicle. I thanked the driver for picking me up.

"For such an exquisite beauty, standing on the side of the road, how could I not?"

No stranger to the usually-harmless catcalls that women in New York deal with on a daily basis, I scoffed.

"I know it's a short ride, there's just an abandoned lot next to my building, and I'd rather take a car this late," I told him.

He looked back at me, white-haired and bespeckled, a character out of a Seinfeld episode. "I understand. A pretty young lady like yourself, all alone, wearing high heels -- really, anything could happen to you."

He was making me uncomfortable. I changed the subject. "Beautiful night, isn't it?"

"It's beautiful because you're in my car," he said.

I couldn't put my finger on where the line between flattery and unwelcome advances existed, but I knew he had crossed it. I started to reach for my cash and my keys, not wanting to spend an extra second in his car.

"Can you do me a favor?" he asked.

Oh no, here it comes, I thought. Alarm bells started ringing, clear as could be.

"Since I did you the great favor of letting you pay whatever you want for this ride, do you mind if I make a quick stop?"

We were four blocks away from my apartment building. What in God's name could he possibly need to do with me still in this car, I thought.

"I just wanna stop at this bodega for a second. No big deal. I'll be right back."

"No," I said. "If you need to stop, I can walk. I'm close enough. It's fine."

"No," he said, his voice rising. "I told you I'd get you to your doorstep. I just want to make a stop."

He started to pull over.

For the first time it occurred to me to look for the driver's identification. Gypsy cabs don't have medallions, but they typically come equipped with a laminated ID number, license, general fare information, and a piece of paper detailing rules of conduct.

I realized this car had none of that. There wasn't a single piece of identification, no badge, no list of livery fares or rights. This guy wasn't affiliated with any car service. He was a free agent -- totally random -- and I was locked inside his car.

"No," I said.

He was getting annoyed. "Come on. It'll only take a minute. I just need to grab something here."

Panic was rising in me, but I kept my voice firm. "Sir, if you get out of this car, I'm getting out of this car."

"Fine, be that way." He almost spat the words, but he got back on the road again.

As we sped towards my apartment, I wondered if I had made a huge mistake. The bodega he wanted to stop at was well-lit and relatively populated, even at this hour. My building, on the other hand, would be completely deserted.

Relief flooded my body as we turned the corner to my apartment: A small crowd of people were gathered around my building, chatting and smoking cigarettes. They were probably stragglers from a broken-up house party, but I didn't stop to ask. I threw my money into the driver's front seat and practically ran for the front door.

Two deadbolts, one security camera and a sliding lock later, I tried to calm my nerves.

It occurred to me that any rapist could easily buy a town car to cruise around in during the witching hour of the late-night last call. And that unsuspecting women -- who would never otherwise accept such a shady ride -- would hop right in.

I don't know why my driver wanted to stop at that bodega a few blocks from my apartment. Maybe he just had a sudden craving for a turkey sandwich. But I do know that on a different night -- if I had drunk a little more, noticed a little less, had that group of revelers not happened to station themselves near my building -- there was a chance that something terrible could have befallen me.

So I'd like to issue a plea to the women of New York -- and the women of any city, really: Before you take a cab of any kind, pause for a second and check for a license. Don't let the relief of catching a ride home overwhelm your voice of reason. If you feel even the slightest twinge of discomfort, step away from the car. Another taxi will inevitably come around, but the chance to act on your intuition may vanish the moment you roll up that tinted window and drive away.